Conquering Lion: Mike Tramp Surveys His Legacy

The former White Lion frontman talks about reimagining his old band’s music

Mike Tramp (Image: Frontiers Music SRL)

As the lead vocalist and lyricist for hard rockers White Lion, Mike Tramp rose to international fame in the late ’80s with hits such as “When the Children Cry” and “Wait.”

Now he’s honoring both his past and his present with the release of the album Songs of White Lion, on which he revisits his biggest hits – but puts a modern spin on them.

“I was 26 years old when I recorded the Pride album,” he says, referencing White Lion’s 1987 breakthrough release. “Now I’ve switched the six and the two around: I’m 62. I’m a grown man with a lot of life experience, and I feel really strong in the songs in the key that I’m singing in right now. I feel my appearance fits the sound.” Tramp has also reimagined the instrumentation in inventive ways, such as transforming the originally guitar-driven power ballad “When the Children Cry” into an emotive piano version.


VIDEO: White Lion “When The Children Cry”

He didn’t tinker with that song’s somber lyrics, though, because the long-suffering state of the world that he addresses in them remains as relevant now as when he originally wrote these words over 35 years ago. “Within the last couple of years, that song has almost been like the national anthem to every disaster that’s been: earthquake in Turkey, the war in Ukraine, Afghanistan…” he says.

He took a similarly solemn approach on several of White Lion’s songs, tackling socio-political issues on tracks such as “Cry for Freedom” and “Little Fighter” (both of which are reworked on Songs of White Lion). 

“I, unfortunately, have always been a little too serious, and I thought about all these things,” he says, explaining that this tendency came about because of his difficult childhood in Denmark. “I come from a very, very tough neighborhood and an extremely poor family. Divorced mom raising three boys.”

Mike Tramp Songs of White Lion, Frontiers Music SRL 2023

Seeking a way out of this desperate situation, Tramp quit school when he was 15 years old and joined a rock band. His bandmates were all a decade older than him, and being around them helped him learn to take a more mature attitude toward his musical career right from the start. 

“Compared to a lot of young people that I met, where the second that they saw MTV that’s all they dreamed about, I didn’t dream about it,” Tramp says. “I looked at it in a completely different way: I was not in rock ’n’ roll for the sex and the drugs, or even the money.”

Instead, he was into it purely for the music itself. Realizing he needed to leave Denmark if he was ever going to truly succeed as a musician, Tramp moved to New York City. There, he met guitarist Vito Bratta, and they formed White Lion in 1983. The band released their debut album, Fight to Survive, two years later. Between Tramp’s thoughtful lyrics and Bratta’s virtuosity, it was immediately clear that White Lion had more depth and skill than many of their hard rock peers of that era.



“We were a New York band out of a Brooklyn basement in an industrial area,” Tramp says. “We weren’t hanging out on Sunset Boulevard with girls all around us. We were freezing. We had no money. Even though we were mirroring some of our heroes, Van Halen and bands like them, we had the tendency to want to write away from Mötley Crüe or Ratt or Poison and stuff like that. We had a little bit something different, even though we all looked sort of the same.”

In 1987, White Lion released second album, Pride, and suddenly found themselves in heavy rotation on MTV and the radio. Pride earned double platinum sales in the U.S. (and also went platinum in Canada) thanks to the singles “Wait” and “When the Children Cry.”

While Tramp was elated at earning such enormous success, he felt torn between being a flashy frontman and nurturing his more poetic tendencies. “Even back then, I was constantly battling between being David Lee Roth on one side and Bob Dylan on the other side,” he says, adding that this was compounded when he became something of a sex symbol: “Once I got into the first teenybop magazine, I could not face my old friends back home in the neighborhood.”

Despite his misgivings about some aspects of fame, Tramp admits that it was still a shock when the grunge movement came along and wiped out all other musical genres just as White Lion released their fourth album, Mane Attraction, in 1991. 

“You’re thinking that everything is all right and the success is going to continue album after album. Then suddenly you go, ‘What’s that sound? What’s that guy doing on MTV wearing an old holey sweater, his hair down in his face, and his voice sounds like an amplifier?’” Tramp says, referring to grunge icon Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. “And before you know it, it’s the biggest thing ever, and MTV doesn’t return your phone calls and they’re not playing your videos.”

Even before grunge, though, White Lion was facing an uncertain future. “By Mane Attraction, I had already changed quite a bit vocally, and I also had started feeling a bit of something else coming out in me,” Tramp says. “It became what convinced me to close down White Lion.” They disbanded after playing a final show in Boston in September 1991.


VIDEO: Mike Tramp “Dead End Ride”

“After White Lion, I had a band called Freak of Nature for three years and three albums,” Tramp says. “Then, in ’97, I released my first solo album, Capricorn, and made it pretty clear that this is how I sound as a solo artist – which is far, far away from White Lion, and much closer to some of my folk heroes like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, that sort of way.

“Then suddenly, I got pulled into trying to do a new version of White Lion, because I knew the original one would never reunite,” he continues. “I used the full [band] name, and it ended up getting into legal issues with Vito Bratta, who I wrote the songs with. And then I pulled out of that.”

Since 2009, Tramp has focused on his solo career once more. “Over the last ten years, I’ve toured around the world with just an acoustic guitar and a suitcase full of CD’s and T-shirts, playing people’s private homes and the shittiest bars and venues that I’ve ever seen – but walked out of there at the end of the show with a smile on and met great people,” he says.

He’ll have another chance to connect with his fans at his upcoming shows to support Songs of White Lion’s release. For the North American tour dates, he’ll tour as a duo with guitarist Marcus Nand, and then this summer, he’ll perform in Europe with a full band. He says he looks forward to playing material from across his career, from the big hits to the fan favorites.

“When I go out to sing these songs, it’s going to be with a big smile on my face,” he says, “and it’s going to be with a lot of satisfaction that I’m still here, I can still perform those songs, and the people are happy to hear them.”


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Katherine Yeske Taylor

Katherine Yeske Taylor is a longtime New Yorker, but she began her rock critic career in Atlanta in the 1990s, interviewing Georgia musical royalty such as the Indigo Girls, R.E.M. and the Black Crowes while she was still a teenager. Since then, she has conducted thousands of interviews with a wide range of artists for dozens of national, regional, and local magazines and newspapers, including Billboard, Spin, American Songwriter, FLOOD, etc. She is the author of two forthcoming books: She’s a Badass: Women in Rock Shaping Feminism (out December 2023 via Backbeat Books), and she's helping Eugene Hütz of Gogol Bordello write his memoir, Rock the Hützpah: Undestructible Ukrainian in the Free World (out in 2024 via Matt Holt Books/BenBella). She also contributed to two prestigious music books (Rolling Stone’s Alt-Rock-A-Rama and The Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock. She has also written album liner notes and artist bios (PR materials) for several major musical artists.

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